My family mostly vacationed up and down the East Coast throughout my childhood. Long weekends in Cape May, road trips to Disney World, days at my aunt and uncle’s rental home in the Pocono Mountains — we went somewhere every summer.
I expected the summer of 1996, the last before high school started, to be the same. Then my parents surprised me and my little sister by saying they wanted to take that summer’s vacation out of the country. Thinking back, this probably had something to do with both my parents turning 40 and celebrating their 15-year wedding anniversary that summer.
More surprising than their decision to take us out of the country was their decision to let me to pick the destination. “Anywhere,” they told me. Now, I’m sure they didn’t really mean anywhere, — like, not Kuwait — but I suppose I’d demonstrated enough logic by age 14 to make a wise decision.
And so I picked the place. I picked Mexico.
I don’t recall why I chose this country out of all the other options. I wanted to travel the world even then, but maybe I wasn’t yet ready to cross an ocean. Maybe I’d seen a movie or TV show on Mexico and thought it looked cool. Who knows.
We left for Puerto Vallarta that August — 15 years ago this month. Half a lifetime ago for me.
I remember being incredibly nervous to fly, even though I’d been on planes since infancy. Our trip came right after both the TWA Flight 800 crash off Long Island and the Atlanta Olympic bombing. The worst of both those incidents merged into nightmarish images of someone blowing up our plane. Thankfully, we flew and landed fuss-free.
Everything seemed green and gold and rural on the way to our resort. Our room looked over the stage of the restaurant and bar where people would later sing karaoke versions of songs like “The Rose.” The resort employees tried to speak Spanish to me. Light-eyed and tanned, my dark hair braided into corn rows by a woman on the beach, I had started to fill out my beaded bikini, but I was more interested in body surfing and plucking shells from the sand. Mexico marked my first dip in the Pacific, a tarp of blue tugged by rough waves. As I bobbed in the surf scanning the mountain backdrop, I dug out small sand dollars with my toes.
The vendors on the beach incessantly peddled colorful necklaces and other wares. The little kids on the street ran up to us selling Chiclets. But this wasn’t where the real poverty lived. Those who dwelled in the outskirts of Puerto Vallarta had shacks for homes, including two beautiful, long-haired twin girls who sold jewelry from their hut. I took my first horseback ride through the shanty town, hugging a trail with little protection from the steep hillside.
My dad and I snorkeled, another first, and saw small black crabs scuttle up the sides of a cave. We went on a boat later that day, and one of the employees bopped him on the head with an empty plastic bottle of booze. My dad’s laugh rocked the boat more than the surf as his green eyes squeezed into slits.
Mexican food tasted bland to me, and after a few days of eating it, my dad took us to an Italian restaurant. A few nights later, my parents got into an argument in our rental car on our way out. The only way I knew they had made up was through a glimpse from the dark backseat of them taking each other’s hands.
Puerto Vallarta turned out to be the last trip my family ever took out of New Jersey. Later that fall, my father got sick, and by the spring of 1998, he was dead.
A friend in Sydney who is Canadian by birth spent part of her childhood and adulthood in Puerto Vallarta. When I learned she had lived there, I attached meaning to the place in a way I hadn’t before. A sadness dwells in Mexico for me because it was one of the last places my dad was in full health. Maybe it’s part of the reason I’ve never been back despite its proximity to the States and the clusters of college classmates who went there for various spring breaks.
While it doesn’t override the other feelings, I now think of my friend when I think of Puerto Vallarta. This friend dearly loves the place in which she has spent a large chunk of her life and talks about its beauty and easy vibe in addition to all the experiences she had there. She and her husband, who happens to be from my part of New Jersey, got married in Puerto Vallarta last November and plan to move there after Australia. She has said before that I can visit them once we’ve all left this side of the world. It would be nice, both to see friends and to see with adult eyes what only my adolescent heart can recall.
*Featured and in-post image by HBarrison